‘Ground zero for pollution:’ In this L.A. neighborhood surrounded by oil refineries, residents grapple with health issues

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  • Magali Sanchez-Hall, who has lived in Wilmington for more than two decades, is used to smelling pollutants from hundreds of nearby oil wells.
  • Pumpjacks work in community public parks, next to school grounds where children play, and outside the windows of people at home. At night, the sky is colored orange by the flames of the refinery.
  • More than 2 million California residents live within 2,500 feet of an operating oil and gas well. State oil regulators recently missed a deadline to issue new rules to protect those living near drilling.

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Los Angeles, Calif. — As you exit a coffee shop near Interstate 110 in the Wilmington neighborhood of Los Angeles, you are immediately struck by a funk.

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Magali Sanchez-Hall, 51, who has lived here for more than two decades, is accustomed to the smell of rotting eggs from the hundreds of oil wells operating in the neighborhood. She describes a chronic cough, skin rash and cancer diagnosis to her neighbors, and the asthma that affects her own family, who lives only 1,500 feet from a refinery.

“When people are getting sick with cancer or having asthma, they may think it’s normal or that genetics is to blame,” she said. “We often don’t look at the environment we are in and think – the chemicals we are breathing are the cause.”

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Wilmington, a predominantly working class and Latino immigrant community of more than 50,000 people, has some of the highest rates of asthma and cancer in the state, according to a report by non-profit communities for a better environment. It is surrounded by six oil refineries and several freeways and the ports of LA and Long Beach.

california, 7th largest oil producing state In the US, there is no rule or standard for the distance of active oil wells from communities. For many Californians, especially black and brown residents, the pungent smell, noise, and mess from oil production are part of the neighborhood.

Walk around Wilmington, in public parks, next to school courtyards where children play and see pumpjacks outside the windows of people at home. At night, the sky is colored orange by the flames of the refinery.

The discovery of oil in the 1920s led to significant population growth in the area. People built and bought homes next to oil fields and refineries, which employ thousands of residents of the region. In LA County, the industry employs approximately 37,000 people, according to a report By Capital Matrix Consulting.

According to an analysis by the nonprofit Fracker Alliance, more than 2 million California residents live within 2,500 feet of an operating oil and gas well and another 5 million — 14% of the state’s population — are within 1 mile.

Residents are particularly vulnerable in LA County, which is home to the Inglewood Oil Field. The 1,000-acre site is one of the largest urban oil fields in the country and is owned and operated by Sentinel Peak Resources. More than half a million people live within a quarter mile of active wells that release dangerous air pollutants such as benzene, hydrogen sulfide, particulate matter and formaldehyde.

Sentinel Peak did not respond to requests for comment.

Sanchez-Hall didn’t understand the connection between nearby refineries and health issues in her community until she moved. She graduated college and earned a master’s degree at UCLA, where she took environmental law classes, and now advocates for clean air and energy in her neighborhood.

“Wilmington is ground zero for pollution,” Sanchez-Hall said. “Now I understand why people around me were dying of cancer. We’re not disposable people. There’s a huge loss because so many of us don’t know what’s going on.”

No buffer zone between drilling and people

Research shows that people who live near oil and gas drilling sites are more exposed to harmful pollution and are at greater risk premature birth, asthma, respiratory disease and cancer.

According to a recent study published in the journal Oil Wells, living near oil wells reduces lung function and wheezing, and in some cases respiratory damage rivals exposure to secondhand smoke or living near freeways. originates from. environmental research.

Another study, Published in the journal Environmental Health Perspectivesanalyzed nearly three million births in California to women who lived within 6.2 miles of at least one oil or gas well. The authors concluded that living near those wells during pregnancy increases the risk of low birth weight babies.

environmental advocacy group California Gov. Gavin Newsom has urged Establish a 2,500-foot buffer zone, or shock, between fossil fuel operations and homes and schools. this year, Bill to ban fracking and create buffer zone State committee vote failed.

Other oil-producing states, including Colorado, Pennsylvania and Texas, have already implemented some sort of buffer zone between properties and wells.

In 2019, Newsom ordered its regulators to study such a health and safety rule, but they failed to meet the December 2020 deadline for action. State oil regulators also missed a more recent deadline in the spring to issue new rules that would help protect the health and safety of people living near drilling sites. The California Geologic Energy Management Division, which oversees the state’s fossil fuel industries, has yet to set a new timeline for regulations.

Meanwhile, since 2019 the governor has approved around 9,014 oil and gas permits, According to the analysis of state data by Consumer Watchdog and the Fracker Alliance.

“Frontline communities have been waiting for a very long time to have basic protection from dangerous oil and gas projects,” said Hallin Kretzmann, an attorney at the Center for Biological Diversity. suing the state To approve thousands of drilling and fracking projects without the necessary environmental review.

“A security buffer is the bare minimum,” Kretzmann said. “The fact that our state continues to delay is disappointing and completely unacceptable.”

The Western States Petroleum Association and the State Building and Construction Trades Council have opposed a statewide mandate to establish buffer zones, arguing that doing so would harm workers and increase fuel costs.

“A one-size-fits-all approach for an entire state is rarely good public policy for an issue like this,” said WSPA spokesman Kevin Slag. “Setback distance based on data specific to an area can have a significant impact on the affordability and reliability of communities, jobs and energy in the state.”

Environmentalists have also called on Newsom to immediately put an end to all new oil and gas permits in those areas.

Earlier this year, the governor directed state agencies to Stop new fracking permits by 2024 and to consider phasing out oil production by 2045. The announcement marked a change in the position of Newsom, who had previously stated that he do not have executive authority To ban fracking, which accounts for just 2% of oil extraction in California, according to the state Department of Conservation.

Newsom’s office did not respond to requests for comment.

Newsom’s predecessor, Jerry Brown, who held the position between 2011 and 2018, approved 21,397 new oil wells. More than three-quarters of new wells under Brown’s administration are in low-income communities and communities of color, according to state data Analyzed by the Center for Biological Diversity.

‘I could have lived a better life’

Josiah Edwards, 21, grew up in Carson, a city in the Bay Area south of Los Angeles and near the West Coast’s largest oil refinery owned by Marathon Petroleum Corp. Edwards and his family members suffered from asthma and persistent breathlessness. Were concerned about emissions from nearby refineries.

“Oil drilling and refineries have always been present in my life,” said Edwards, who now volunteers with the Sunrise Movement, an environmental advocacy group in Los Angeles.

Edwards remembers getting bloody noses as a child and associating them with pollution from refineries. He researched how exposure to pollution might have contributed to the development of childhood asthma and wondered if his life would have been progressing elsewhere.

“It makes me angry and upset. It’s a situation where I could have lived a better life with better health outcomes,” Edwards said. “Even though it still annoys me, I have high hopes for what could happen. There is potential for change.”

Marathon spokesman Jamal Kheri said the company’s refinery in Carson has invested in air emissions control equipment and has cut its benchmark pollutant emissions by 35% over the past decade. It has invested $25 million to install aerial surveillance systems along the perimeter of its facilities, and is providing those results to the public.

phasing out of oil and gas locally

Some parts of the state have taken matters into their own hands.

Culver City in LA County passed an ordinance In one of the most ambitious moves by an oil-producing jurisdiction, to end oil and gas extraction on its part of the Inglewood Oil Field within five years. The ordinance also requires that all wells be closed and released during that time period.

Ventura County, located northwest of LA, has adopted a 2,500 buffer zone between oil wells and schools, and 1,500 feet between wells and homes.

And LA County observers voted unanimously earlier this month to phase out oil and gas drilling and ban new drill sites in unincorporated areas. The county is set to determine the fastest way to legally close wells before providing a timeline on the phase out.

Jacob Roper, a spokesman for the Department of Conservation, of which CalGEM is a sub-agency, said the department is “working hard to develop science-based health and safety regulation to protect communities and workers from the effects of oil extraction activities.” Is. “

“This is a complex set of rules with subject matter outside of our previous regulatory experience,” Roper said. “This includes close collaboration with other state agencies and an independent public health expert panel in an effort to ensure a thorough analysis of relevant science and engineering practices.”

LA could become one of the first major cities in the US to virtually eliminate fossil fuels from its electricity supply without disrupting the economy, according to a Recent study commissioned by the city. Technologies such as solar farms, wind turbines, batteries and electric vehicles make the transition possible, while reducing harmful air pollution in the most vulnerable communities.

“There are local authorities who are taking this issue seriously,” Kretzmann said. “But the fires, ongoing droughts and heat waves in California are reminders that we need a lot more action on fossil fuels.”

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